Creativity as Sleuthing
I don’t know how other people “do art.” I observe them, those other artists. I make connections. I draw my own conclusions about what is working for them in the creativity realm. But I can’t get into their heads.
And you can’t get into mine, unless I let you in. Here’s my attempt to tell you what happens in my head when I write. It’s all about solving mysteries.
I am a big reader of mystery stories. Doyle, James, Sayers, I’ve read all of their works. The what-happened, the whodunit, the motive, the finding of clues, the unfolding at the end, and finally the reveal and capture – this is a very satisfying plot to me. It makes me feel the same way I do when I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Place the flat edges around the outside, find the corners, see patterns, connect the pieces, and then the soft click of two pieces connecting on the card table… Ah, nice.
Writing is like that for me. First, I gather the clues. It’s where I figure out my own motive or rationale for the present project. Some people write because they have a big message to share with the world. That’s not me. I write to figure out my message – my motive. To me a message is an excuse to write. It’s what I do. The hardest part for me frequently is in finding this message, or motive, since I would write no matter what.
The way I find this motive is through what I’ll call “pre-writing” and then “raw writing.” Pre-writing is just day dreaming, or in many cases, night dreaming as I drift off to sleep. Sometimes this happens on a walk, or while driving. It is being very quiet and patient with my mind and seeing what drifts to the surface. Sounds boring? I actually enjoy this. I have an interesting mind and can keep myself entertained for hours doing this. TV? Bah. The inside of my eyelids is more interesting.
Raw writing is opening a notebook (or Word document) and writing non-stop, uncensored, free flowing for at least ten minutes. (For more on this, see Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She says it all there and much better.) By finding out what is caught in the folds of my brain in this way, I usually can generate a motive. I say to myself, “Self, that is a clue worth following. It intrigues me. And other people might be interested. Let’s do more with that.
Writing as mystery-solving is also about figuring out the “whodunit,” or more accurately, the “who-will-read-it.” For me it’s important to picture who I’m writing to. The message/motive I’ve surfaced is intriguing to me, but who might agree? Or who might vehemently disagree, leading to a very interesting exchange of ideas? Do I want to convince or encourage or enlighten these people? Do I just want to show off to them? What do they look like or care about? Where can I reach them (literally and figuratively)? These are important considerations as I figure out which words I use and where I use them.
To be completely candid, though, I probably spend less time on this piece of the puzzle than any other, since it can be distracting. I have to first write something I care about because I am my first audience. There will always be critics, even among my target readers. I have to satisfy myself first to gain a sense of confidence that others would even want to read my words. But the envisioning of a specific reader is useful in the creative process, as it gives me a relational motivation for writing, and that is important to me. I may be an introvert, but I’m still relational. I want to connect
Finally, I select a form, which feels a bit like the part in the mystery where the murder weapon is found and the “oh, that’s how she did it” becomes obvious. It’s almost a physical moving of things around until there is illumination: move this paragraph there, cross out that sentence, add a concept. Because I’ve done so much writing of so many different types in my lifetime, I have a set of go-to forms in my mind that work for various messages. Some ideas fit nicely in a haiku. Others require a three-point blog post. Maybe it’s a list of mutually exclusive collectively exhaustive concepts in a technical white paper. Maybe the thought is so big it requires a whole book to sprawl out and expand. Whatever form it takes in the end will provide that ultimate revelation that is so critical to unraveling the riddle at hand
Writing as mystery, as crime scene investigation, as resolution and wrap-up. That’s what it feels like for me, how it unfolds in my brain. I wonder what it’s like for you.